Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
By Sherry Turkle
Basic Books, 384 pp, $28.95
When Sherry Turkle wrote The Second Self, her first book on the psychology of computer culture, the latest rage was a boxy beige machine threatening to disrupt the calculator and typewriter industries. The year was 1984, and many dismissed the Apple (AAPL) II and its fellow personal computers as mere expediters—things to help humans add, subtract, and type a little faster without white-out. Yet Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and clinical psychologist, sensed something more potent. In her book, she flipped the argument around: The personal computer didn't do things for us, she argued, it did things to us. "What fascinates me," she wrote, "is the unstated question that lies behind much of our preoccupation with the computer's capabilities. That question is not what will the computer be like in the future, but instead, what will we be like?"
The answer is derived from an anecdote at the beginning of her new book, Alone Together, which extends the arguments she wrote about in The Second Self and its unofficial 1995 sequel, Life on the Screen. Turkle writes about a woman who goes to interview a new nanny. "I show up at her apartment and her housemate answers," the woman recalls in Alone Together. "She is a young woman, around 21, texting on her BlackBerry. Her thumbs are bandaged." The texting injury, for Turkle, is not the disturbing part. When the woman asks the roommate to knock on the potential nanny's door, which is 15 feet away, the roommate objects. "Oh no," she says. "I would never do that. That would be intrusive. I'll text her." Turkle concludes the obvious about the exchange: "Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other."
For most, including those reading Turkle's engaging book on their iPad or Xoom, this incident may sound familiar. At the very least, it has been explored extensively in the growing oeuvre of How Devices Shape Our Lives books, which may be the biggest publishing industry fixation since vampires. Yet this genre and its cyber-analysts owe a debt of gratitude to Turkle, the category's godmother. Technology has changed drastically in the past quarter century in which Turkle has been working, yet her thesis appears truer than ever. In today's world, our gadgets don't just contain our memories—phone numbers, addresses, birthdays, appointments—but also harbor our emotions and identity. Instead of a cup of coffee with friends, we rapid-fire text, update statuses, and share photos smartphone-to-smartphone with Instagram. These technologies have allowed us to filter and minimize human contact, perhaps to our detriment. The only way the TV show Friends could exist in the Digital Age is if it were about people who met on Foursquare.
We have been headed down this path for a while. In the first century BF (Before Facebook), the letter gave rise to the telegram, which allowed people to communicate quickly without being in the same room. Ensuing innovation led to the telephone, then to *69, which enabled people to screen calls. Somehow, though, life went on as usual. It was only when access to the Internet became widespread that things changed for the worse, Turkle argues. Face-to-face connections transformed into 140-character tweets. These days, a comScore study shows, more than 30 percent of Americans tap into social networks on their mobile devices. Twenty-seven percent of Facebook users are so addicted that they log on in the bathroom.
This bathroom behavior probably wouldn't bother Turkle all that much. Her real concern is how digital devices are making public spaces private, even when two people who actually know each other are sharing the same space—such as all the couples out to dinner who stare at their iPhones instead of each other. And that's the real value of Turkle's lucid, well-written analysis. "The new technologies allow us to 'dial down' human contact," she writes, "to [measure] its nature and extent." Reading this book will be like an intervention for digitally addicted thumb-tappers. Some will get it. Many more won't. "The network," she says, "is seductive."
Turkle's solution is not to discourage technology but to put it in its place. Even Microsoft (MSFT) agrees. The company is betting that its new smartphone software—designed to keep users away from the screen—will be an antidote. In Windows Phone's recent ad campaign, people are shown on their smartphones at Little League games, while riding bikes, or sitting on the beach. "Really?" a voice asks before another responds, "It's time for a phone to save us from our phones." Somehow, though, Microsoft's phone hasn't caught on. As Turkle might suggest, that doesn't sound like a future many of us will ever know.